New, Larger Authors Guild Survey: Falling Incomes for US Writers

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The new Authors Guild survey, larger than in the past and with input from other writing organizations, brings into question how authors are compensated and how the issue is assessed.

Image – iStockphoto: KV Kirillov

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Report: Median Incomes Continue Falling
In one of those quirky coincidences of news coverage, a familiar number has arisen in the top-line reporting from the United States’ Authors Guild about author incomes.

Since 2009, their newly released report says, median incomes for authors from writing have fallen by 42 percent.

And when the United Kingdom’s counterpart survey results were announced in June of last year, the Society of Authors reported that the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society had found that median incomes for professional writers since 2005 had dropped the same amount: 42 percent.

To be sure, no one on either side of the Atlantic is cheered by these reports of flagging earning potential for writers. The two largest English-language markets are worrisomely reporting similar trends.

Nothing can be made of a “42 percent” coincidence, of course, beyond an understanding that for all the intricate variables and uncertainties in surveys of this kind, the overall international community of writers on whom publishing depends is repeatedly telling the industry that it sees its revenues declining.

First, let’s go over high-level points of the new Authors Guild survey to get a sense for the positioning that the US market’s oldest and largest (some 10,000 members) advocacy organization for writers is providing. And then, we’ll look at the developing discussion around the news.

Key Points of the 2018 Authors Guild Income Survey

Authors Guild: US Published Book Author Income Survey, 2018

The guild has had the Codex Group develop the US Published Book Author Income Survey of 2018 as what is reported to be the largest survey of American professional writers to date. It was conducted between June 7 and August 21 of last year, with a drawing of 100 Visa gift cards of $50 each as an incentive to respond.

The sample comprises input from 5,067 published book authors. For the first time, the guild expanded its survey range, requesting responses not only from its own membership but from members of 14 additional writer organizations. That overall group numbered 9,288 people. The completion rate was 55 percent, which the guild notes was “far lower than the 74 percent who completed the 2015 Authors Guild member survey—due to concerns about hacking, the ISBN stratification question, and increased privacy concerns in today’s digital environment.”

“Reducing the monetary incentive for potential book authors even to enter the field means that there will be less for future generations to read.”Nicholas Weinstock, Authors Guild Council member

The breakdown of how the respondents identified themselves is interesting. From the guild’s explanatory information:

  • 53 percent said they consider authoring books their primary occupation, spending half or more of their work time writing
  • 56 percent said they write fiction
  • 18 percent said they write literary fiction
  • 38 percent said they write genre fiction
  • 22 percent said they are academic, scholarly, or textbook authors
  • 18 percent said they write general nonfiction
  • 9 percent said they publish books to advance their work or personal brand
  • 46 percent said they’re traditionally published
  • 27 percent said they are strictly self-publishing
  • 26 percent said they are both trade- and self-published—the guild notes that “slightly more than half of the respondents have done some self-publishing”

Taken together the responses reported by the full sample of participating published authors indicate that their median income from “all writing-related activities” was US$6,080, down three percent from the guild’s sruvey work in 2013, and down from $10,500 in 2009.

When focusing only on “book-related activities,” the median income for the full sample of published authors “fell from $3,900 to $3,100, down 21 percent; while full-time traditionally published authors earned $12,400.”

There is what appears to be a brighter spot. Authors identifying themselves as full-time, when reporting “all writing-related activities,” showed a median income that was up 3 percent over 2013, coming in at $20,300. The guild points out, however, that this is still substantially lower than the $25,000 median income that class of writer reported in 2009.

It won’t surprise many in the business to hear that writers classifying themselves as literary reported the biggest decline, down 27 percent in four years.

And yet while literary fiction has been understood to be under pressure, it’s perhaps less expected that general nonfiction showed a four-year decline of 8 percent. Granted, the current nonfiction boost is clearly influenced by the demanding crises of the current political climate, but the general sense has been that nonfiction as a whole is relatively healthy.

“There was a time in America, not so very long ago, that dedicated, talented fiction and nonfiction writers who put in the time and learned the craft could make a living doing what they did best … That is no longer the case for most authors.”Richard Russo, Authors Guild vice president

Quickly a few more general points:

Self-published writers responding to the survey overall reported earning 58 percent less than trade-published authors in 2017, even while citing what the guild says was a 95-percent increase from 2013 to 2017. (In the top decile, the indies had a median of $154,000 while the trade-authors reported $305,000.)

Not only did self-published romance and romantic suspense writers report median incomes “almost five times higher than the $1,900 median author-related income for the next highest-earning self-published genre category of mysteries and thrillers,” the guild writes, but “the median author-related income for self-published romance and romantic suspense writers was only $50 more in 2017 than in 2013, which may indicate that self-published romance writers as a group have reached a plateau for earnings under current business models.”

In some of its summary text the guild staff writes, “Full-time midlist and literary writers are on the verge of extinction”

‘The organization also points to “blockbuster mentality” as hurting authors, along with those stubbornly low ebook royalty rates of 25 percent and increases in deep discounting.

You may find the guild’s “Six Takeaways” article on the survey to be a good way to look at some of the points we’ve surfaced. You can find it here.

Coverage, Respectful and Cautious

Authors Guild: US Published Book Author Income Survey, 2018

Responses in the news media have been careful. It’s well understood that the guild’s work is important and that this survey is one of many such efforts in a situation that offers few other tools for bringing to light the earning experiences the industry’s authors are encountering.

The phrase “crisis of epic proportions for American writers” is being used by the guild as its main signal of alarm.

“Maybe the worst blow to writers is Amazon’s online secondary market. Within months of a new book’s publication, ‘new’ and ‘lightly used’ copies are offered alongside the publisher’s for a fraction of the price, in a sale that provides no royalties to the author.”Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild past president

Cal Reid at Publishers Weekly does a good job of summing up the Amazon-related commentary of the survey, “Unsurprisingly, Amazon—described as a dominant force in bookselling and book publishing—figures prominently in the income survey, cited as both a positive and a negative force.

“Amazon has ‘democratized’ publishing, enabling more people to publish books than ever before and the survey found that 76 percent of self-published authors used one of Amazon’s platform. Amazon’s [optional KDP Select] requirement that authors sell exclusively on their platform limits the amount of money they can make.” Update: As a couple of Publishing Perspectives readers have noted, authors who self-publish with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program do not have to do so exclusively, as Reid’s original interpretation has it. Terms and conditions for KDP Select are spelled out here.

Reid continues: “Moreover, the survey found, Amazon’s dominance over online bookselling (the e-tailer controls 72% of the online market, the report found) forced traditional publishers to effectively suppress the income for traditionally published writers. ‘Amazon puts pressure on them to keep costs down and takes a large percentage, plus marketing fees, forcing publishers to pass on their losses to authors,’ the report said.”

At Publishers Lunch, Erin Somers pulls out some interesting and potentially encouraging points by looking into the survey data’s average earnings, rather than medians, writing, “For the 63 percent of authors who reported receiving book related income in 2017, the average total income was $43,247, which paints a very different picture . Over 2,000 authors had average publisher royalties of almost $32,000; close to 1,700 self-published authors reported royalties of just over $31,000, and a smaller group of about 700 authors also had average ebook subscription service earnings of over $13,000.”

And author John Scalzi, a leader in the author community, couldn’t seem more appreciative and respectful of the guild’s effort and report, and in an article at his site, goes on to posit the important question of whether the business of being an author is one that we should expect to provide a living wage.

“The Authors Guild’s problem here,” Scalzi writes, “appears to be one of survivorship bias, namely, that the authors its execs can name off the top of their head as being writers making a living ‘just writing’ in the 20th Century are the ones that are the literary equivalent of the one-tenth of the one percent. …  I’m more curious how the jobbing authors of the mid-century fared; the ones who didn’t win Nobel Prizes or hit the bestseller lists or get film adaptations of their works.”

“Poverty is a form of censorship. That’s because creation costs. Writing requires resources, and it imposes opportunity costs.”TJ Stiles, Authors Guild Council member

We must stress that such cautionary observations aren’t the fault of these unquestionably valuable organizations. Experts in statistics have told Publishing Perspectives that it’s all but impossible to design a genuinely scientific sample of the kind needed to get past the difficulties of the “self-selecting sample” on which these interpretations of our writers’ struggles are based.

And through no fault of our writers or their organizations, even designations of “professional writer” are less conclusively established than they may seem because the business doesn’t provide hard markers, such as a physician’s residency at a hospital or an attorney’s admission to the bar. No one is to blame for the vagaries of the career definitions of the creative industries’ indispensable artists, but the nature of these professions is that they are, of necessity, self-selecting and self-defining.

And this complicates things. Here’s an example of what Scalzi is getting at.

The author of Bird Box, Josh Malerman, a writer we’ve covered closely for years, writes in five-hour sessions from about 7 a.m. to noon. You know him now for the international hit Netflix/Universal Pictures release of Susanne Bier’s film adaptation of the book with Sandra Bullock. (Our interview with him on the film’s release is here.)

What you’re not seeing is that this 42-year-old author has been writing books since he was 20. And Bird Box is his debut. By 2014, at age 38, he had 17 finished books. Years ago, Malerman told us: “From age 20 to 29 I failed at writing five books.” And from age 29 to 38, he was writing books that he saw as more promising, but they were all still in his drawer. He did write some lyrics for The High Strung, the band he has fronted for 20 years. But would a survey like the Authors Guild’s have found him to get even that bit of writing-related revenue on record?

And let’s consider an angle from a major publisher’s point of view.

Roughly 25 percent of all authors surveyed by the guild reported that they earned $0 in “book-related income” in 2017. And 18 percent of full-time authors reported that they earned $0 in “book-related income” during the same time period.

By way of offering an explanation, the guild writes, “This is likely because of the decline in ongoing royalties for previously published work and the decreased ability to receive a decent (or any) advance for the next book.”

Now look at the “Who Owns the Word?” session hosted by the Authors Guild itself and moderated by the guild’s vice president Richard Russo at the New York Public Library in December. In his intro, Russo mentions the coming guild survey results.

“There isn’t some kind of bubble that’s being created. But advances are up. And more importantly as an indicator of the health of the market, paid or earned royalties are actually up.”Madeline McIntosh, CEO, Penguin Random House USA

You can see a tape of the session at the library’s site here. Roll in to about the 18-minute mark in the tape, and you’ll see and hear Penguin Random House’s US CEO Madeline McIntosh saying that she has looked at the data of our largest publisher and that she’s found that in the last decade she can discern a slight increase, not decrease, in advances.

Russo, understandably, asks for confirmation: “Within this decade?”

“Within this decade,” she confirms. Careful to point out that she can speak only for her own corporation, not others, McIntosh tells him, “There was a dip before that happened immediately after the financial crisis a decade ago, which is not surprising. But ever since then, they [advances] have been up. Not irrationally up. There isn’t some kind of bubble that’s being created.

“But advances are up. And more importantly as an indicator of the health of the market, paid or earned royalties are actually up.”

McIntosh then adds, “If sales are up for the industry as a whole, what is going on below the surface in terms of what kinds of books are selling?”

The Inconclusive Conclusions

Penguin Random House USA CEO Madeline McIntosh speaks at the Authors Guild-hosted New York Public Library session in December 2018, related to the newly released guild study on author incomes. At left is Richard Russo and Kurt Anderson is in the center

McIntosh’s “below the surface” phrasing is helpful.

What’s playing out here is the fascinating and sometimes maddening problem of understanding a rapidly changing landscape for authors. Look how deeply the publishing infrastructure available to writers has changed from the days in which PRH and other publishing houses were the only routes to publication.

Is it simply asking too much of self-selecting-sample surveys to adequately reflect the myriad shifting experiences and conditions in which our authors and other writers are working? And how, then, are our great organizations like the Authors Guild and the Society of Authors to advocate—as surely they must—for the betterment of the creative workers whose careers they support?

One point that we think holds genuine potential for research is the guild’s assertion, “Publishers and self-published authors should be able to negotiate collectively with Amazon, Google and Facebook to equalize the bargaining power. Congress should enact an exemption to antitrust law to permit it.”

The many success of the guild’s legal team and the organization’s insightful leadership by its executive director, the attorney Mary Rasenberger, argue for this as a significant observation well worth following up.

The era of these giant tech platforms has opened both new opportunities and extensive challenges for writers and publishers, and we wonder if CEO Maria A. Pallante’s Washington-savvy contextualization of the work of the Association of American Publishers might not be brought into play along with Rasenberger’s own experience in the US Copyright Office.

Clearly, our writing corps needs support and the Authors Guild’s efforts are to be commended.

To really move the advocacy effort to the next level, howeer, it appears that it’s time for new tools that can quantify and evaluate authors’ needs with more reliability and new conceptualizations, perhaps collective bargaining, for how our authors and publishers can best navigate the market dynamics that lie ahead.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Authors Guild is here. And more on authors in general is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.